Author: Laurel Remington
Publisher: Chicken House Books
Publication date: 4 August 2016
Series or standalone?: Standalone
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Twelve-year-old Scarlett is the star and victim of her mum’s popular blog. The butt of school jokes, she’s eager to stay out of the spotlight. But one evening, she finds a gorgeous kitchen in the house next door which has been left empty by an elderly neighbour in hospital. As Scarlett bakes, she begins to discover new friends and forms the Secret Cooking Club. But can baking really help fix her family or her search for a mysterious secret ingredient? And will her new hobby stay secret for long?
The Secret Cooking Club is fun, straightforward stuff. It’s not quite the Great British Bake Off in book form (I’ll give you a second here to collect yourself in the wake of the apparent demise of the cosy, pun-filled format we all know and love), but that doesn’t stop it trying. In mixing protagonist Scarlett’s discovery of her passion for old-fashioned homemade recipes with the modernity of her mother’s role as a ‘mummy blogger’, it’s easy to see why the book ticked many of the marketable boxes from 2015’s Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction competition.
Scarlett’s hobbies, school disasters and most embarrassing moments have all been revealed to the masses in the pursuit of fame. But while her mum obliviously spills the beans to the amusement and sympathy of fans, Scarlett struggles with teasing at the hands of classmates and former friends. Then she stumbles upon her next door neighbour’s magnificent kitchen and special recipe book, and she finally has something to call her own again. This book’s plot is fairly predictable, but I was surprised by its keen observation of what a life where every mistake is up for grabs – on social media, on camera, in print – does to kids. Knowing that her every move could potentially end up on her mum’s blog, Scarlett’s become fearful of humiliation, quitting many of her afterschool activities and feeling that only by doing and saying nothing can she escape infamy at home and in the classroom. Her self-confidence, like her connection with elderly neighbour Mrs Simpson, must be built over time.
The Secret Cooking Club is by no means a classic, but it’s a quick, clearly written début. It’s uncomplicated, relatively harmless – Scarlett, while occasionally trespassing and leaving tea towels on the hob, is the kind of character who has apparently avoided the rat race of early teen snapchat politics and still gets excited about the prospect of holding a boy’s hand – and on the whole jolly. The villains have names like Mr Kruffs and Gretchen and serious themes are presented simply, but its bright, colourful cover will leap from the shelf for parents of 9-12s seeking unchallenging, innocent reads. There are descriptions of cakes and tasty treats which will see plenty of young readers eager for, if not the multi-hour effort of cooking, then at least the resulting delights.
Straightforward and full of baking montages, The Secret Cooking Club, though far from a classic, is fun, easy-to-read kidlit.